College Basketball Expert Handicapping: Louisville after Pitino
It was not the offseason that the Louisville Cardinals dreamed of. Or really the last 18 months or so. Scandal has piled upon scandal, so instead of being one of the elite basketball programs in the country getting ready for a new season, they are dealing with change, conflict and uncertainty. Obviously, the firing of Coach Rick Pitino and AD Tom Jurich leaves bettors with all sorts of questions. Is this team going to be able to live up to their potential? Before Pitino's problems this felt like a team with definite second weekend potential at the NCAA Tournament. They could still get there, or they could curl up in a ball and give up on themselves. What should we expect? Your guess is as good as mine at this point, but here are six factors to ponder when trying to figure it out:
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Distraction will continue: Pitino has sued Adidas and continues to snipe with the school over how he has been treated. Lawsuits don't go away in any hurry, and his bitterness and the anger of the school will last even longer. These players have already been asked about it and have heard people whispering about the situation since it happened. That won't end, and it will only intensify every time PItino is back in the news due to the inevitable next development in his story. And then there is the shadow that Pitino casts. Every time the team does something really well people will speculate about the impact Pitino had on it. Every time they do something poorly people will wonder if it is because the Pitino situation has been a distraction. He is gone but certainly not forgotten, and it is very likely that his absence will be more of a negative than a positive - in the short term at least - in several ways.
This is nothing new: The Cardinals have been enmeshed in scandal since 2015 when the story of escorts hired by coaches for recruits broke. The team self-imposed a postseason ban last year and may have to vacate their 2013 title. These players - especially the veteran ones - have been dealing with chaos and distractions for three seasons. They are better positioned to deal with it than most teams would be.
Veteran starters: The team starts four upperclassmen and a sophomore, so they aren't dealing with adjusting to the game at the same time as dealing with all of the other changes. Quentin Snider and Anas Mahmoud are seniors, and Deng Adel is a junior, so the core is mostly experienced. Darius Perry is the lone freshman seeing heavy usage early on, and he is a highly-regarded recruit who seems ready for prime time. The roster is set up as well to handle this mess as they could be.
Coaching: David Padgett was a great college basketball player. He started at Kansas, leaving the year after Roy Williams, who he had committed to, left for North Carolina. He went to Louisville and went on to star under Pitino. After a couple of years playing in Europe and a stint as an assistant at IUPUI he returned to Louisville in 2014. He was director of basketball operations for a year and an assistant coach for two before taking over the head coaching duties - on an interim basis, but one with no end in sight. I don't doubt his basketball IQ, or his upside as a coach, but at 32-years-old he has no business running a program of this caliber - never mind one facing the turmoil this one is. He had never even run a practice by himself before the first one of this season. He knows the players, which is a bonus, but he has to figure out what kind of coach he is, implement his own systems, and keep these players on track. He has little experience to draw on. He has largely been influenced by Pitino as a coach and player, but just trying to be Pitino Jr. isn't going to work. And inevitably Padgett will be asking himself - consciously or not - what Pitino would do in key situations he faces. It's a tough task for any coach, and as much as I like Padgett I have to be pessimistic in the short term.
It's going to be a rocky road for him this year. The team tried to get him some help, hiring former LSU and Stanford head coach Trent Johnson as an assistant. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, though. Johnson is nearly twice Padgett's age and infinitely more experienced. If Johnson has ambitions to be more than a mentoring assistant, and if Padgett is forced to look over his shoulder or second guess himself all the time, things could be even worse for the young coach. And beyond Johnson, Padgett is dealing with a new set of assistants he hasn't worked with before. He not only has to figure out who he is as a head coach but also how to work with assistants and what his assistants are capable of.
Schedule: Things start out slowly for the team, so they really ease into their season with four fairly easy games. That will give them more time to practice and figure out who they are and what they need to do. That's probably a good thing, but they really plunge into the deep end starting in game five. Games against Purdue and Seton Hall will both be huge tests. From a betting perspective, the good news is that those games will be a very good measuring stick for where the team is and how we should deal with them. It could have been four straight rough games, but Siena isn't the team they have been at times, and Indiana is really struggling under new leadership.
Betting: Until those Purdue and Seton Hall games there is a simple way to deal with betting on this team - don't do it. Anything we think we know about them is pure speculation, and we just don't have the sample size to make effective decisions given the extraordinary circumstances. The team could be a mess. They could rally together and play beyond expectations. Or they could be somewhere between those two things. There is no way of knowing.
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